April 13, 2011 12:00 PM | Eric Caoili
[GameSetWatch contributor Simon Parkin watches Rez-creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi demo his latest creation, Child of Eden, to find an experience closer to a piece of music waiting to be interpreted than a traditional video game.]
Tetsuya Mizuguchi, standing in the glare of three colored lights that throw a tall silhouette on the white wall behind, is not a game designer tonight. Rather, as he plays his latest music game creation Child of Eden with wild hand gestures, all grasping clutches followed by expressive splays of the fingers, he is transformed into a grim-faced conductor.
His orchestra is made up of a metallic hi-hat section, a clutch of snare drummers, and hundreds of electronic tics and whistles that dart like fireworks around the room with each flick of the wrist.
From time to time Mizuguchi, creator of Sega Rally, Space Channel 5, Lumines and Rez, raises both arms above his head. Euphoria, the move is called. Interpreted in an instant by the Kinect camera watching his every move, it detonates a bomb on screen and in the ears, filling Child of Eden’s dream world with white bloom as a choir aahs its way to the front of the soundscape.
“After Rez was released nearly a decade ago, my inspiration for a next project became very fuzzy,” he explains to the assembled audience at this BAFTA-organized event held on a warm April evening just a few hundred meters from where the Royal Wedding will take place later this month.
“I had two ideas for what I might like to do if given the chance to make a spiritual successor to Rez. One was to make a game made up of organic shapes. The other was to create an emotional experience. To be honest, it’s taken me almost 10 years to realize Child of Eden from those two starting points.”
During that time Mizuguchi formed his own band, Genki Rockets, a creative endeavor that provided not only inspiration for Child of Eden’s look in Lumi, the band’s 18-year-old front-girl that you are working to “save” in the game, but also much of its soundtrack.
The designers’ twin influence of the organic and the emotional are writ large over the game’s appearance. As with Rez the experience takes place in abstract space, but rather than the cubes and triangles of its predecessor, Child of Eden’s world is filled with the neon creatures of deep oceans, line art manta rays whose fins flaps in slow motion elegance while plankton-like shapes dart all around.
There is almost no HUD to clutter the visuals, a sea of openness interrupted in the distance by pinprick collapsed stars; echoes of Northern Lights colors and shapes, an electric tundra that rolls off into nothingness. The soundtrack has the same trance purity that defined Rez, stages – or ‘Archives’ as they are called in the game’s parlance – heave and build to an overwhelming climax of sound, music and art.
In the Archive that Mizuguchi demos, the boss encounter -- to borrow the terminology of the designer’s arcade heritage -- is a 50-foot flaming phoenix, ripping its way through space, as the camera circles to take in the fluttering feathers you shoot from its wings. It’s a transcendent experience watching the synergy between creator and creation, and when the Archive is fully exhausted, and the slightly incongruous score read-outs flash up on-screen, the audience erupts in warm applause.
For an industry arguably appreciative of Kinect’s software line-up rather than enamored by it thus far, Child of Eden makes for compelling viewing. The control scheme appears intuitive and clever. The right hand is used to sweep the screen, locking on to targets when the fist is clenched. Splay your fingers and bullets scream out at those targets you are locked onto. Meanwhile, the left hand can be used in the same manner to fire a pitter-patter snare drum volley of tracer fire, particularly effective against purple enemies.
It’s clearly taken a while to get to this point. “It was not easy [to implement Kinect controls],” Mizuguchi says. “The first playable was very bad indeed. The latency was so poor with the sound effects triggering a long time after you first made your input. As with any music game, before you can find the fun you have to eliminate the latency.”
The game can still be played with a controller (a press of the back button switching between control set-ups) but Mizuguchi seems settled in using the motion controls, and excitedly describes a “trance corset” the team has made in Japan, a holster for up to four Xbox 360 controllers which can be worn while playing the game with Kinect to press rhythmic pulses against your skin.
Are such features gimmicks? Undoubtedly, to one degree or another. But they serve to embellish the core of the experience rather than distract from it. That core plays to both gamers who love the score attack elegance of Sega’s Dreamcast-era output as well as those who want games to more fully explore the relationship between sound, visuals and interactivity.
This dual interest is clearly visible in Mizuguchi himself. “Games are fun but we need more than that,” he says at one point, almost as an aside to the audience. Later, when one attendee asks him a question about “the game” he cannot hide his discomfort with the term, saying: “Is Child of Eden a game? I’m not so sure,” before quickly backtracking under a glare from Ubisoft’s attendant PR who clearly does not want that to be the headline any journalist takes from the event.
When asked what games he plays Mizuguchi is quiet before saying ”no comment.” There is a hint of disdain towards the medium in which he has made his name. When asked how he got into the industry Mizuguchi almost takes pride in the fact that “I never wanted to be a game designer,” explained how, at his job interview with Sega, he incorrectly identified the company's Master System as rival Nintendo's Famicom.
By contrast, he becomes most animated and excitable when he is allowed to talk about his creation in terms of synesthesia and the artist Kandinsky (“a life theme for me”) whose influence is stamped across Child of Eden just as clearly as it was Rez.
But despite this, he still wants Child of Eden to be more than an art experience, keeping its scoring mechanics and potential for excellence in play. “I want to see on YouTube the high score play. That still appeals to my arcade roots,” he admits. “But I also want people to be able to just play the game and enjoy it and relax.”
To help players with poor rhythm have the most harmonious experience possible, triggered sound effects are quantized. "As with Rez and Lumines we divided play into 16 and 32-beats, like a piece of music. Player sound effects pay within that rhythm, so it always feels as though you are playing somewhat in time. It’s very important to me that you can feel like a conductor, performing an action and then having the sound come back at you."
In this regard, it appears as though Child of Eden is a resounding success. Its player may not be able to alter the tempo or character of the music playing underneath, acting more like a percussive soloist, riffing over the top of the song, but rarely has a video game entwined physical activity, sound and play in such an expressive, arresting manner.
Video games, at their best, are less like films than pieces of music, waiting to be interpreted by their players in creative, personal ways. Child of Eden may be a gentle evolution of a decade-old cult classic, but in its marriage to Kinect, it has become a concerto waiting to be played. And Mizuguchi invites us to conduct and interpret the piece while being appraised, not by a watchful audience, but by the zeros and ones of score attack.